Lain Iwakura doesn't interact with the world much. She doesn't really have any friends at school, while her family mostly ignore her. Sometimes it's because they're too busy, but sometimes it's because they simply don't care. However Lain isn't too bothered. She has the virtual world, called the Wired, which she accesses with her Navi, a computer that almost seems to have a mind of its own.
Then the deaths begin.
I'm not a fan of Serial Experiments Lain, but to its credit at least I'm about to express my dislike in a relatively flattering way. Some anime, like Cowboy Bebop, have little substance beneath their style. Serial Experiments Lain is both tremendously stylish and packed to bursting with substance. It's a cyberpunk epic, asking questions about the internet, the collective unconscious, conspiracy theories, God and many other themes from cyberpunk literature, like an anime precursor to The Matrix but with a brain instead of action scenes. Admittedly The Matrix was philosophical, but it was plate-spinning "this spoon is not a spoon" pseudo-philosophy. Serial Experiments Lain is far meatier.
More so than almost any other show, anime or otherwise, it practically demands close critical analysis. It's like literature in its layers of theme and meaning. Unfortunately I found it boring.
I'm no fan of multiple layers of reality, in this case the Wired. If something isn't even real within the fiction, I lose interest. Here the 'story' (for lack of a better term) appeared to be a random sequence of pretentious shit and dull characters. Lain herself is almost entirely passive. No one else matters at all. Similarly the plot has no conventional progression, instead being almost entirely the intellectual exploration of its ideas. Weird stuff comes out of nowhere, then goes away again. Nothing seems to have consequences.
Your enjoyment of these thirteen episodes will depend on how interested you can be in their questions and how much thought you're willing to put into uncovering the meaning of their events. Me, I didn't care. All these theoretically shocking events felt almost meaningless. Thematically rich, but in narrative terms just random shit that's basically weirdness for its own sake.
It looks cool. I love the art, which makes deliberate use of still frames, flat colour and minimalism in a way Frank Miller would admire. It's not Sin City, but it's playing similar visual games. Furthermore the story picks up towards the end, reaching a satisfying (albeit confusing) conclusion instead of disintegrating into shapelessness as I'd expected. I'd practically given up on the series going anywhere at all, let alone unfurling an ending more interesting than I'd have believed possible in this "am I real or am I my own shadow?" genre. I was impressed. More patient viewers than myself regarding virtual reality would probably have been fascinated by the clues, hints and speculations which accumulate throughout the series. Even for me, from time to time the series created something genuinely creepy or thought-provoking. In particular I found the last episode haunting. At the end of the day, I'm glad I watched it.
I admire much about Serial Experiments Lain. It's a thoughtful, mature take on cyberpunk that avoids the usual anime cliches of cyberbabes, giant robots and computer hackers. It really is literature, but on a storytelling level it's bollocks. Like Haibane Renmei from the same production team, it's a mood piece that circles its subject, hinting at philosophical issues and trusting its audience to forgive the lack of story development. Of the two I prefer Haibane Renmei, because it's all about its characters. A lot happens in Serial Experiments Lain, but that's not the same as having a story. Everything feels so random and arbitrary that I didn't get the impression that it was going anywhere, while its lead character is so passive that I don't feel I can even call her a protagonist. She's just the person to whom all this shit is happening. By all means watch this if you're looking for something different, although it tested my patience. It was an impressive achievement and a breakthrough show in America for anime. However I ended up selling my discs of it.